Merkel backs Israel’s demand that Iranian troops be removed from Syria
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Merkel backs Israel’s demand that Iranian troops be removed from Syria

Hosting Netanyahu in Berlin, chancellor says Iran's regional influence is 'worrying'; PM warns of 'new religious war' in Mideast

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that she agrees with Israel’s demand that Iranian troops be removed from Syria, especially the area close to the Israeli border.

“Iran’s regional influence is worrying,” she said, adding that her government would use “diplomatic” means to counter it.

Announcing at a joint press conference in Berlin that she and other government representatives planned to visit Israel in early October, Merkel said that “one has to discuss” Tehran’s presence in Syria. She also condemned the Islamic Republic’s heavily anti-Israel tweets.

On Sunday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called the Jewish state the “cancerous tumor” of the region that must be “removed and eradicated.”

“This is amazing that in the beginning of the 21st century, somebody talks about destroying Israel,” Netanyahu said. “It means destroying another six million plus Jews. It’s quite extraordinary that this goes on, but this is what we face.”

Merkel said “we sharply condemn what the Iranian leadership said,” but at the same time reiterated her view that the 2015 nuclear agreement was the best way to prevent Iran from developing atomic weapons.

“We are not in agreement on all questions, but we are friends, we are partners,” Merkel said of the visiting Israeli leader.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu address a press conference after a meeting at the Chancellery in Berlin on June 4, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Tobias SCHWARZ)

US President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal on May 8, with Netanyahu’s enthusiastic encouragement and support.

Both the US and Israel hope that Trump’s withdrawal can lead all sides into addressing what they say are the deal’s shortcomings — including “sunset” provisions that eventually end restrictions on Iranian nuclear activities, such as enriching uranium, as well as permitting Iran to continue to develop long-range missiles.

Merkel, like other European leaders with whom Netanyahu is set to meet later this week, has urged Trump to remain in the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

As he took off for Berlin on Monday, the first leg of a series of visits with European leaders, Netanyahu indicated that Iran would be the first and only subject on his agenda.

Intent on winning support for amending the nuclear deal with Iran and getting Iranian troops out of Syria, the prime minister will also meet with French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May, both of whose countries are signatories to the deal.

At Monday’s press conference, the two leaders agreed that it was important for the International Atomic Energy Agency to review a secret Iranian nuclear archive that Israel smuggled out of Tehran earlier this year and which Netanyahu announced to the world with great fanfare at the end of April.

Netanyahu warned Merkel that Iran’s presence in Syria should also worry Germany, given that Shiite militias there were intent on converting Sunni Muslims to their creed, with the result that a “new religious war” would break out in the Middle East and send further waves of refugees to Europe.

“The Iranian military presence right now in Syria includes about 18,000 Shiite militia, commanded by Iranian commanders. These Shiite militias come from Afghanistan, from Pakistan, from other places, and they have a specific goal, a military goal, but also a religious goal,” Netanyahu said.

“Iran wants to increase the number of such militia to 80,000 and to basically conduct a religious campaign in largely Sunni Syria. Syria is 96 percent Sunni, but try to convert Sunnis. This will inflame another religious war. This time a religious war inside Syria, and the consequences would be many, many more refugees and you know exactly where they’ll come.”

Israel fears that as the Syrian civil war winds down, Iran, whose forces and Shiite proxies have backed President Bashar Assad, will turn its focus to Israel.

The Israeli Air Force is believed to have carried out a number of airstrikes on Iranian positions in Syria. Last month, the bitter enemies openly clashed when Iran fired dozens of rockets at Israeli positions in the Golan Heights, and Israel responded by striking several Iranian targets in Syria.

Lebanese soldiers inspect remains of a Syrian surface-to-air missile that had apparently been fired at Israeli jets during an extensive air campaign against Iranian targets in Syria, which landed in the southern Lebanese village of Hebarieh, on May 10, 2018. (Ali Dia/AFP)

Last week, it was reported that Israel and Russia had reached a deal to remove Iranian forces from southern Syria, while also giving Israel a green light to strike Iranian targets in Syria.

The reported agreement would see Iranian forces leave southwestern Syria, while allowing Israel to strike Iranian assets deep in the country. Israel agreed not to attack Syrian regime targets, a report in the Arabic Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper said.

Turning to the issue of long-dormant peace talks with the Palestinians, Netanyahu said, “Our hand is always extended in peace,” while arguing that Israel’s improving relationships with Arab states were “most promising route.”

Merkel said, “There isn’t agreement on all points. But we’re partners, we’re friends.”

While the German leader reiterated the need for a two-state solution, Netanyahu said there would be no progress until the Palestinians recognized the right of the Jewish state to exist.

“We have changes in the region that are taking place, and I think they’re very promising,” Netanyahu said, referring to Israel’s “developing” contacts with Arab states.

“They developed obviously because of our common concern with Iran and its aggressive designs, but I think they go well beyond that, because many Arab states recognize that Israel can contribute technologically to the development of their societies, a better life for their people,” he said.

“It may not be possible today, but I believe it will be possible tomorrow. And that’s what we’re all working for: A better tomorrow.”

Agencies contributed to this report.

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